Vancouver’s Human Flesh Search Engine

Photo by Richard Eriksson

I don’t like violence, vandalism, or other actions that generally cause destruction. Certainly there are cases where violent social dissent is a sad but important final step to fulfil a much needed social change (e.g. overthrowing a ruinous dictator, tipping the scale to defend or secure essential civil rights) but riotous behaviour following a hockey game lacks any legitimating force. Unfortunately, in the aftermath of game seven between the Vancouver Canucks and Boston Bruins a riot erupted in downtown Vancouver that caused significant harm to individuals and damage to the urban environment.

The riot itself is a sad event. What is similarly depressing is the subsequent mob mentally that has been cheered on by the social media community. Shortly after the riot, prominent local bloggers including Rebecca Bollwitt linked to social media websites and encouraged readers/visitors to upload their recordings and identify those caught on camera. In effect, Canadians were, and still are, being encouraged by their peers and social media ‘experts’ to use social media to locally instantiate a human flesh search engine (I will note that Bollwitt herself has since struck through her earliest endorsement of mob-championing). Its manifestation is seemingly being perceived by many (most?) social media users as a victory of the citizenry and inhabitants of Vancouver over individuals alleged to have committed crimes.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I have significant issues with this particular search engine. In this post, I’m going to first provide a brief recap of the recent events in Vancouver and then I’ll quickly explain the human flesh search engine (HFSE), both how it works and the harms it can cause. I’m going to conclude by doing two things: first, I’m going to suggest that Vancouver is presently driving a local HFSE and note the prospective harms that may befall those unfortunate enough to get caught within its maw. Second, I’m going to suggest why citizens are ill-suited to carry out investigations that depend on social media-based images and reports.

Riotous Behaviour Comes to Vancouver

Following the conclusion of Stanley Cup final, downtown Vancouver was overcome by riotous behaviour. Cars were set ablaze. Violent altercations between emergency services and rioters occurred. Citizens fought with one another, as some tried to protect property that was being targeted by looters and malfeasants. Riot police were out in force. The city sky was laden with the smoke of meaningless destruction.

Photo by Matthew Grapengieser

Initial reports suggested that only a handful of people were involved, but it was quickly evident that a substantial number of people were taking part in the mayhem. While a considerable amount of damage was done we can hope that companies’ and individuals’ insurance policies will cover the physical losses. While many were administered to hospital there seem to have been surprisingly few serious injuries, with most being administered to hospital because of exposure to pepper spray and tear gas.

During and following the riot, Vancouver Police Department (VPD) has requested that citizens provide photos and video of riotous behaviour so that the cops can conduct investigations and bring charges. Importantly (and responsibly) the VPD asked for images and video to be shared directly with them; they don’t want individuals publicly posting images and video. There are at least two reasons for this kind of request:

  1. Preserving the chain of evidence. When you upload photos to Facebook, as an example, it strips the metadata off the images. As a result there is a more labor intensive process to verify the legitimacy and accuracy of images located on Facebook. I can guarantee that clever defence attorneys will point to a flawed chain of evidence stemming from lack of metadata information as reasons that social media-based imagery and videos should be disallowed from the courts.
  2. Understanding the danger of the mob. The VPD clearly recognizes the potential harms that arise when a mob races off to identify and convict, in the court of public opinion, individuals who allegedly engaged in illegal behaviour. I say allegedly because even if an image shows a person seemingly lighting a car on fire, until the court has evaluated and verified the evidence, and the person in the image has a chance to defend themselves (or admit their guilt) they are allegedly guilty. This presumption of innocence before the courts, regardless of evidence that exists to ground a case, is a fundamental cornerstone of our democracy and we should be mindful and respectful of it.

Unfortunately, our politicians have been less thoughtful. We’ve seen them call on citizens to publicly publish images using social media networks such as Twitter. This isn’t particularly surprising: I doubt that many of the politicians making such calls are trained in the retention of evidence, nor do I expect them to have thought about the longer-term impacts of associating names and images with people who may be acting like idiots whilst simultaneously not breaking the law (e.g. posing before a flaming car may be stupid but ought not to be automatically interpreted as being responsible for lighting the vehicle aflame). Especially when you consider how rarely some people are tagged in photos on the public Internet, and that many websites are associating names with photos on sites that Google spiders crawl, permanent images of stupidity may be misread long into the future as images of illegality. Such contextual inferences may negatively impact people for the rest of their lives. This is not a good thing: the Internet doesn’t forget and you simply cannot assume that a border guard or employer is going to spend the time (or have the wherewithal) to search for the context of stupid but not illegal images.

The Human Flesh Search Engine

The Human Flesh Search Engine (HFSE) is an engine driven by humans to find humans. It often involves the collection of open- and closed-source intelligence to find individuals who have allegedly broken a law or violated some social norm. Open-source intelligence is “freely available on the Internet through groups with open memberships or simply posted to websites” whereas its closed counterpart “is not publicly available and is associated with information security operations, intelligence gathering, “softer” business, and professional relationships” (PDF Source). The HFSE is in regular operation throughout Asia (and especially China and South Korea) and is used for what may be seen as admirable aims (ferreting out government corruption and perpetrators of illegal actions) and far less admirable aims (identifying and shaming individuals who are violate social norms or break incredibly minor laws). Regardless of the end result – which one might consider positive or negative – the means of arriving at that end tend to do violence to the individuals under ‘investigation’.

As examples, after information about a person is made public they are often subject to illegal forms of harassment, including hate mail, threatening phone calls, death threats, and other forms of psychic and physical harms. To be clear: the HFSE operates on a fuel of vigilantism that is bereft of legal or operational legitimacy. To be yet clearer: the ends, no matter what they happen to be, do not justify the means of arriving at them. Conducting an illegal form of investigation that lacks legal legitimacy and that may in fact taint the ability to lay legal charges against potential criminals because of potential evidence misuse/mishandling/fabrication is not a good thing. The rise of smartmobs, while certainly an interesting phenomenon from a scholarly point of view, are not something that we as a society necessarily should be condoning, supporting, or encouraging.

Vancouver’s Newest Search Engine

Within hours of the riot in Vancouver, locals were turning to social media and began to collate images and videos of individuals who were seemingly engaged in riotous behaviour. In addition to posting images there are public efforts to both identify

From Vancouver Riot Pics Facebook Group

individuals in photos and take a direct form of justice on them: rather than simply providing information to the police social media users were actively punishing suspected criminals. Photos were transmitted to employers, or intentionally made public so that future searches for those individuals would bring up the images/videos along with uncorroborated commentary. One blog, titled ‘Public Shaming Eternus‘, saw its owner (who refuses to publicly reveal themselves and instead operates under the pseudonym ‘Captain Vancouver’) write the following:

These young men and women IF they get prosecuted will most likely be given probation, perhaps fines, community service etc. If they do end up with a criminal record, they will also (if given a savvy enough lawyer) be able to have that black mark removed.  At the end of it all, the consequences are minor.

Public shaming however reveals their faces, their names and ultimately has longer lasting effect.  There are those who would say that our court system is for the public record to view.  When was the last time the average person sat in on a trial and read court transcripts?  They are all there for the viewing to see.  Public shaming thru the use of social media and blogging shall place them into a world that is engraved into history.  It shall be chiseled into the hard stone of the internet and last eternally.

When a person’s name is typed into google or any search engine, especially if they are relative nobody’s, they do pop up on the first page during the search.  More and more of today’s employers are googling the names of the people who apply for jobs. I know when I run my company, I wouldn’t hire the people I saw rioting in the streets of my city.  So if they show up in a search 5 years from now, let them explain in their job interview’s how they’ve “all grown up now”. Roll the dice and see if they still get the job.

The politics of shame should not be the ‘solution’ to criminal activity as it strikes to the heart of a person’s dignity instead of striking towards the (lack of) integrity of their actions. Our system of justice is not designed to ‘brand’ individuals with social-media inspired scarlet letters. Those that actively attempt to cause harm to others outside of the judicial system should at the very least have the courage to conduct their shaming actions publicly so that they can ‘enjoy’ the prospect of future civil litigation. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, right?

In addition to attempts to permanently ‘brand’ individuals who may or may not eventually be found guilty of criminal actions, there are calls for violence to befall individuals pre-trial. The below screenshot from the Vancouver Riot Pics Facebook group is commonplace throughout the social media landscape at the moment.

From Vancouver Riot Pics Facebook Group

Posing before wreckage is not in itself a crime, though citizens are clearly posting the images with the implied assumption that those posing are guilty of a crime. Further, one poster is advocating the hanging of the individuals in the photograph using language reminiscent of the Ku Klux Klan’s racially motivated hate killings. I ask: would Mr. Griffin use the language he did were he privately communicating with the police to convey information about people who he suspected of criminal behaviour? I suspect that he would not.

In some respects, of course, social media is behaving similar to the morality plays that go on everyday on talk radio: a key (if unspoken) element of the mob-usage of social media is to rearticulate the community’s social norms. This isn’t to suggest that local Vancouver norms are to hang prospective criminals, but instead that there is a permissiveness to “Othering” certain people who are merely suspected of wrongdoing, or who are perceived as ‘less real’ or ‘unclean’ in comparison to the community’s membership. The language of the noose is unfortunate in many respects, both in the sense that it articulates a glee for vengeance and the acceptability of drawing on racist overtures in the Othering of photographed individuals.

The language and articulation of shame towards alleged rioters is commonplace in social media environments right now, though it is perhaps best captured by Ms. Kashino’s decidedly non-unique statement:

From Vancouver Riot Pics Facebook Group

The celerity at which individuals engage in what is the digital equivalent of ‘water cooler talk’ – discussions that were historically informal, rarely thought out, hidden from a wider public audience, and non-permanent – and the longevity of such comments are common problems with social media. These are issues that have been discussed widely within academic, policy, and public circles and are far from being resolved. Personally, I tend to agree with Dan Solove in The Future of Reputation: online social networking environments lack traditional media’s norms of restraint (though I’m not arguing traditional media has been much better) and that the “less-well-developed-norms” of social networking need to be reconstituted with a widely held code of ethics that sees people reflect and filter their comments online prior to uttering/writing them. This isn’t meant to suggest that individuals should censor their language, but that they should be considerate in the language that they utter. If in their considered opinion racist, misogynistic, or homophobic language is appropriate then let them utter it, though one hopes that in their moment of reflection they realize and acknowledge the harms associated with such modes of verbal violence.

Citizens Are Not Trained Investigators

Statements made on social media have the ability to leave long-lasting scars on individuals as well as misdirect anger and the human flesh engine more generally. Consider the early reports of a Bruin’s fan being discovered bleeding on the ground:




While I would agree that this is a sad image, the full story is that the Bruin’s fan began a physical altercation and was subsequently knocked down by a pair of local security guards. Should the guards have their images circulated for using excessive force, given their own lack of legal authority to cause bodily harm? Or are they heroes for protecting property and individuals? Or, in fact, is the ethical situation around this image (along with many, many other photos and video clips) far more complicated? Are citizens ideally situated to evaluate the legalities and ethics of how these violent altercations were, and should have been, resolved?

While this was a case where the managing editor of a citizen-journalism site did a followup on claims, in doing so he demonstrated the value of journalistic ethics and integrity. Most citizen-journalists lack the ethical training and vetting processes that professional journalists go through. I’m not, of course, saying that to post something online one must have gone to journalism school: the point is simply that the alacrity at which citizen-journalists will press ‘post’, ‘like’, or ‘tweet this’ when the implications are potentially far-reaching will often diverge from the alacrity of a principled, ethical, and well-trained journalist. Further, one would not expect a journalism site to advocate for identifying and shaming individuals who have allegedly been involved in criminal acts. The same cannot routinely be said for citizen-journalists.

Beyond the notion of ethics and reserve that are often lacking when people turn to social media, there is the simple fact that citizens are not trained investigators. As such, it is entirely possible that in conducting their ‘investigations’ to trace and identify individuals in photos that they may behave in illegal or unethical manners themselves. Further, the processes used to identify individuals may in fact contaminate their very findings: while you may learn who John or Jane Doe are, if in the process you illegally collected information then those defendants are likely to argue that the means of identification are inadmissible and try to leverage that to avoid a guilty verdict. Of course the success of any such legal maneuver will vary, but that it is even possible is the result of untrained individuals using questionable methods as part of the Human Flesh Search Engine.

Finally, I would simply note that citizens are incredibly poor in conducting and acting on surveillance footage. In cases where normative or decisional actions are part of the surveillance process the untrained are often more of a hindrance than asset; they are truly best at identifying black/white kinds of evidence and then alerting trained investigators to the evidence. To clarify: watching a border or photos to identify illegal acts and individuals responsible involve normative and decisional processes that citizens are unqualified to responsibly and professionally engage in. Recognizing that a photo or video might be useful to authorities and passing it on – and letting them take action on the content – is a case of black/white identification. Effectively, if you outsource policing to amateurs you get amateur results that could bungle broader investigations and criminal proceedings.


I conclude by taking pains to largely reiterate the earliest statements of this post. I in no way support, condone, or like the riotous behaviours that were evidenced in Vancouver, and nothing in this is intended to absolve the individuals responsible for it of their guilt. Instead, I simply warn that a human flesh search engine that functions per the logics of vigilantism and shame are in clear violation of the norms and ethics of Canadian policing and judicial procedure, can cause harm far in excess of an action captured by a digital recording, and potentially undermine authorities’ capacity to prosecute alleged criminals. Further, citizens are not trained to analyze open source intelligence, nor are they ideally suited to know the full extent of what they can and cannot do to identify and name someone. The intent to cause harm in excess of the judicial system is not only detrimental to those targeted by members of the Human Flesh Search Engine but, potentially, to those members should they face tort-based legal challenges in the future. While the reaction of social media users to identify and shame alleged rioters is unsurprising this doesn’t mean that the practices should go unchallenged or left free of critique. The actions taken to identify, name, and shame alleged rioters is the beginning of a slide towards a state of mind and looseness of ethics that have been proven to cause harm abroad: I see no reason, based on those experiences, why we should import known, failed, modes of citizen surveillance and investigation into the Canadian experience.

20 thoughts on “Vancouver’s Human Flesh Search Engine

  1. Cogently argued Christopher, thanks for posting your thoughts. You have echoed in a much more rigorous fashion my misgivings about the Facebook and Twitter sites drawing attention to alleged rioters.

    Two evenings ago when I was watching the footage of the riots on my computer, I posted an intemperate Tweet saying the perpetrators of the violence should be “named, blamed and shamed.” I did not wish for a version of mob or vigilante justice to take over, but that seems to be what’s happening now. The next morning I wrote a blog post clarifying that in my opinion the riots were a culmination of a number of factors and therefore no one group should in isolation shoulder the blame for what happened.

    It is my considered opinion that:
    – it is the justice system that should do the “naming,” not yet another mob,
    – all of us who make up the communities in the lower mainland should be responsible for finding solutions (“blame” rarely does any good),
    – “shame” is a much more useful motivator for change when it comes from within the perpetrator himself. We can hold someone accountable for their actions, but we can’t force him to feel remorse.

    Anyway, thanks for your voice of reason and temperance in this matter.


    • Thanks for the comment Tori. Martha Nussbaum has a terrific book on shaming as it relates to law titled “Hiding from Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law.” In it, she articulates the deep seated problems with shame as a form of legal discourse and punishment. It’s in no small part to her arguments that I really distinguish between actions and individuals themselves, on the basis that shame leads to absolutely horrible socio-political impacts whereas addressing root causes of actions can (re)enable a person to engage in ‘regular’ society. Shame is aimed at breaking down the individual and their concept of self-worth and dignity, and is rarely effective in rehabilitation: instead it feeds a deeper system of violence that is often hidden in our societies. Personally, I prefer a (formally) transparent and accountable legal system that approaches individuals as innocent until proven guilty. The alternate – whether citizens or government perpetuate it – can have long-lasting consequences far outstripping the actions taken by those allegedly engaged in riotous behaviours.


  2. For an example of ‘mis-branding’ one can look at the example of the “kiss” photograph. A young couple was photographed lying in the street in a deserted spot between a crowd and a police officer. The young man was raised slightly above the young woman in what was initially thought to be a kissing posture but, now is being reported by the Guardian to be concern for her well-being after being pushed down by a police line.

    The photographer is self-billed as a photo-journalist on his website and the article makes reference to his having an editor for the publishing of this photo. There should have been a degree of responsibility and a chain of command in the case of this photo, yet, quite likely the wrong story was propagated.

    At first, I was more disposed to be neutral towards the idea of citizen involvement but the above, clearly reasoned, article and examples have convinced me of the dangers of the smartmob. Thank you.


  3. One of the best commentaries I have seen, well reasoned and argued. A worthwhile discussion for us all to have. I happen to disagree, but find a number of your points worth further (and in some cases initial) consideration. Thank you for lending your voice to the ongoing discussion. I will be adding a link to this article to one on my own blog. Well done.


  4. Hi!

    These are good points! However, we do have a legal system. If you produce a photo of me on looking at the burning car, I cannot be convicted on any grounds unless there is other evidence. People who will be identified are (I assume) going to be asked if they have photos of people actually doing these acts and a lot of them will have either descriptions of individuals or photos of them. So they won’t be prosecuted (on what grounds?) but having someone show up at their door asking for more information will, in some cases, result in good intelligence,. I don’t know how else many of the perpetrators will be discovered. So over all, this could be a very good thing.

    I agree completely that shaming people isn’t up to us. It isn’t responsible and is a bad idea.



    • While police may arrive and ask for further information to secure the evidentiary chain, this is more work than if people were adhering to what VPD was actually asking for. Further, while people may be legally innocent there is the very real implication of the Mob 2.0 that people will be seen as socially guilty (regardless of actual guilt) and treated as guilty to offenses they haven’t actually committed.


  5. Thank you for the deep and thoughtful analysis on the subject. Shame the John programs have been around for years and have worked very well in reducing the Johns in neighbourhoods, this is an evolution in that process. I think we also need to determine the difference between “citizens arrest” and “vigilanteism”. I happen to think that people have the right to identify those at a crime scene and turn them in [virtually or publicly]. It is for the courts and legal system to sort out after that. Police would not have been able to identify the accused through submitted photos or images without the assistance of the crowd. I agree there maybe a better way to handle it then to publicly name the accused, and I actually have an web application idea that could answer this. The genie is out of the bottle and this will only grow over time due to the access to social media tools. This is a watershed moment in law enforcement, crowd sourced surveillance, and citizen’s action groups. Next time there is a riot maybe people will realize that they are no longer anonymous in the mob and that we the people will not be held hostage by their actions. The mobile camera is the new weapon and I think it’s much better than a baton or a gun. Weather we agree it is right or wrong this is the new reality.


    • I’m not willing to make the claim that police couldn’t have identified individuals; we’re seeing them potentially moving to ICBC’s facial recognition system, and they are able to initiate public calls for information as needed. I’ve seen claims that ‘VPD couldn’t X’ but statements like that need to be backed up by empirically verifiable facts.

      I don’t expect that what happens here will have any effect for dissuading future riot(er)s. Riots tend to be fuelled by emotional energies and, as seen in endless amounts of research with CCTV (some of which has been conducted by Queen’s SCAN project) it is ineffective in assuaging crimes motivated by passion.

      As for statements about ‘this is the new reality’, that assumes a level of technical determinism that I reject. Technology is neither good nor bad, but nor is it neutral. It is deeply steeped with political, ethical, economic, and sociological conditions: as a community and society we can reframe permissive and impermissible uses of a technology. When the hammer was created did it reshape reality such that everything in life was a nail waiting to be pounded? If so, does this mean that anyone can use a hammer to hit anything? Of course not: social norms, laws, and morality govern what are acceptable and unacceptable uses of that hammer. The same can evolve with social media.


  6. Think you may have overlooked or ignored a useful function, legally speaking, of the HFSE: while an individual image or video may not capture decisive evidence of a crime per se, there is a human witness behind almost all of these images, who can testify to the nature and context, and describe the crimes their subjrpe


    • I don’t see how the HFSE enhances this potential versus just sending along images to the police. Again: this is adding more work for officers (having to track down the source of the image) that is avoided if it is directly sent to the police.


      • Sorry about that, my comment got prematurely posted (stupid iPad….)

        Notwithstanding the possibility the police have face-matching technology that can use the ICBC license database (holy whole other can of worms, Batman*!), the hard part of getting these photos to turn into charges or civil torts is matching names to faces: the photographers can attest to the verity of what they captured, as well as what they saw, as first-person witnesses. What they cannot usually do is say who the person in question was.

        So far, the distributed vigilantism of the Human Face Search Engine promises faster matching of names to faces, at which point the witness (and the police, if they deign to visit these sites; it’s usually easier to find the photographer than the subject) has enough info to be a useful witness.

        The question of whether the police have better assets to name the people in these photos than, well, posting them online and asking for public help is, in my opinion, questionable. Posting those photos online doesn’t affect chain of custody, as far as my (inexpert) understanding goes, either: unless the shooter was extraordinarily careful, there’s no meaningful technical chain to the photo’s source; you’re just using it as a compelling aid-memoire for the photographer’s eyewitness testimony (as well as a useful sanity check so people aren’t mis-identified through eyewitness descriptions), and to get the names for the faces from others.

        *I realize, that as the epitome of misguided vigilante justice, bringing up Batman’s name here is in exceedingly poor taste, as well as potentially deranging the discourse. We do not regret the error.


  7. Great post Christopher! I was banned from the “Vancouver riot pics” facebook site a few days ago for voicing many of the points you brought up. I know I wasnt the only one. I have also been a member of a page “Stop Vancouver’s Digital Vigilante Mob” for a few days now. There arent a lot of members for whatever reason but it is a nice place to talk to people who see the potential damage these other sites are creating. Anywho, Im proud and happy to know that more and more people are against the whirlwind of hate on certain sites. Again, thank you for what you wrote. It was a breath of fresh air.


  8. Christopher, one of the things that have struck me is that the power of shaming… is essentially that of ostracism to the Athenian or excommunication of an individual, yet it actually is not checked in significant capacity by legal codes. Cultural revolution for example is a great demonstration of exactly how far a state must go (and hurt its own) when hell breaks loose, with a whole generation of red guards and their victims sacrificed by the party at the end of the episode.

    The act of degrading a judicial system to assault the dignity of intended targets would be a potential slippery slope (and an automatic invocation of Godwin’s Law). Needless to say, even it’d be a folly totally deny the desires of a society in extra-judicial penalties, the perversion/erosion of due process by popular sentiment must be safeguarded against. Our current development with human flesh search engine is nothing new, nor are the lessons of the past any younger.

    It is hard to ask the civilian that are posting such information to be held with the same level of due diligence as trained professionals, and for that matter, to treat their words as that of media broadcasts. The general population are subject to criminal and tort laws, but these are incredibly ‘undefined’ when it comes to the matter of culpability for online ‘opinions’, especially if no action can be firmly attributed to such comments.

    Ultimately, the online world is young. Most individual fail to realize the extraordinary power that words, in this self-documenting and mass published form, can wield. The potential in these immortalized accounts, off the cusp or premeditated, far outstrip that of the pen, and the sword without saying. This immense force of ‘replies’ will remain a spectre of the digital community for years to come. It remains to be seen whether or not if accountability, anonymity and privacy can be reconciled so that the medium will reach maturity.


    • To be clear: I’m in no way suggesting things that are easy to accomplish, and I’m well aware of many of the difficulties in developing a more responsible Internet ecosystem. There has been a publishing revolution in the past 20 years and those who were the early adopters (including myself) ‘cut’ ourselves then and people who enter now will experience difficulties that have already been ‘addressed’ in the past. Ethics and norms that people who have been online and communicating for a long period of time did not develop instantly, and they take time to sow. Key, however, is that they can actually be sown. In countries such as South Korea children are taught netiquette in primary schools along with ‘physical world’ etiquette. Adopting similar processes in Canada, today, will help to instill awareness both of right behaviour, potential punishments (you’re still potentially liable for whatever you write online…the laws still apply!), and ways of responsibly engaging with this next extension of our communicative lives.

      Does this mean that we will ever get 100% enforcement? That people will always be nice? Of course not, and that’s not the aim of either norms or law. The aim is to have a broad population the acknowledges both what they shouldn’t do and why; it’s critical to have understanding behind any conditions that dissuade particular actions/statements. Perhaps other measures will be tested – some academics (not myself) argue that free speech/privacy and accountability are out of balance, and so liability should be imposed on those hosting speech – and some will succeed and others fail. What’s of particular import is that people learn and acknowledge the potential impact of online writings on other individuals – other citizens – and for us to work towards alleviating the worst conditions of our societies and personal natures. It’s not an easy task, but it’s important that we start rather than just accept the ‘reality’ of the online world.


      • Speaking of the example of South Korea (as you’ve mentioned) and China, who have pioneered in Internet addiction clinics, we see some interesting backlash within their own social fabric that some have casted as ‘generational’, leading to much lament that it may well be a few decades (to the point that power transfers to that of Generation X at least) before a more acceptable convergence of netiquettes and legal etiquettes can occur. (I must profess that such attitude is prevalent even here in Canada, so this is a fairly grotesque generalization in itself)

        It will take time to cultivate experience for those of us that have grown up with the Internet (which is my generation) to grapple with the social-political intricacies involved with forming policies that better reflect online realities. We can all take comfort however, in the fact that legal precedences that are now being set are self-documenting and widely available, to the point that even language barriers pose no obstacle; so long as the public memory is lasting, building of better paths to a matured online world will become inevitable.


  9. It’s dangerous to go alone, take this:

    Evidence of false accusations, death threats, harassment and hate speech which the administrators of Vancouver Riot Pics allowed to remain on their page, after deleting voices of caution or restraint.

    In the court of Facebook Opinion, where everyone is guilty until proven innocent by the VPD, the accused are banned for attempting to defend their own reputations.

    That’s some kind of “justice”, but it’s nothing I recognize as Canadian.


  10. Thanks for your thoughtful post. But I disagree almost totally. Two points: isn’t a sense of public shame at the heart of our concept of justice? I think a sense of vigilante justice is inseparable with our desire for an effective public justice system. Yes, the comments at Facebook are insensitive, but I think they also show the passion people have for a safe community. Secondly, this is an evolving use of technology. Some of the rioters were posing, completely without thinking of the consequences. I welcome this discussion, but why take a moral stand now? Isn’t it reasonably likely that we move to a milder form of vigilantism than in the past, in acknowledgment of the new ubiquity and permanence of publicly accessible records?


  11. Okay public shaming is potentially dangerous, okay it’s not exaclty helpful in some regards; to be honest I wish it wasn’t suddenly a prat of the Canadian culture either, but it bares asking: where is this movement coming from exactly?

    I dare say it’s coming from a lack of faith in the justice system’s ability to do anything about what happened on June 15th 2011.

    Even if the VPD and Crown are as expert as you say, and the public shaming movement is as misguided and incompetent as you imply; what are these VPD and Crown experts accomplishing? The VPD is always saying “we’ve made 150 arrests”. Okay, but how many arrests have been made since the riot?

    The underlying current of this public shaming trend is that the people rightfully believe that the system will do nothing to bring about any justice for what happened during the riot. Historically speaking, I suspect people have every reason and every right to feel that way.

    Public shaming is nothing more than a spontaneous outcry from multitudes of people who probably have first hand experience in being let down by the justice system.

    If the VPD, judges, lawyers, etc, have a problem with the recent movement of public shaming then they need to take a look in the mirror. The public’s total lack of confidence in those people doing anything about what happened on June 15th is what inspired the public shaming movement to happen in the first place.


    • I would grant you that people are likely concerned about the VPD’s abilities, now, but the solution to that is to call for more resources instead of abandoning the system itself. As for what the police are accomplishing? They’ve made some arrests, and are presumably continuing to look for matches between suspects and names. I see no reason why they’ve been ineffective; they are behaving as police should, and responding after the event.

      As for the undercurrent, well, I again suspect you’re accurate in people’s sentiments. That said: historically speaking, riots of this sort have happened in previous major sporting events in the city. Historically speaking, arrests were made then and up to 10 years following the event as individuals were identified. Justice isn’t always as swift as we’d like, but, again: the solution is resources for special cases and events, not abandoning the justice system itself.

      I doubt very much that the people who have been involved in shaming have been personally affected by judicial letdowns. Moreover, that’s an empirical claim and thus requires some element of evidence to support it. I (admittedly) can’t defend my position stated in the prior sentence, but suspect that those making claims along your lines can draw on methodologically sound evidence to the contrary.

      As for the origins of shaming: if you look through the development of the justice system in the West, you see that shaming had been a key element until relatively recently. This turn was the result of new ways of administering justice and an emphasis on rehabilitation. Even then, you had localized instances of shaming but nothing that was global and widespread as the Internet. We are facing a new mode of communication that needs to be carefully interrogated and may require shifts in social norms if we cannot tame its best and simultaneously worst characteristics.


  12. Thnx for covering this Vancouver case and sharing your approaches to it about justice and society. I’m making my PhD about netcrowds: how ordinary people seld-organize themselves on the Internet and solve complex tasks, like recovering from catastrophes, as a single collective intelligence.

    HFSE or RenRouSouSuo has risen in my studies a kind of mutation, or the dumdness of crows. But for many reasons to long to explain here, the Internet seems to nourish it (among many other things, of course). In the cases of the netcrowds – and RenRouSouSuo – people were mostly half-anonymous in the first years of 2000’s. Along social media, both phenomena seems to appear with real names also.


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